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Audit Notes Santa Maria Police Department Has ‘Significantly Improved,’ Should ‘Fine-Tune’ Reviews

An independent audit of the Santa Maria Police Department determined the agency has “significantly improved” the quality of internal investigations but should take additional steps to “fine-tune” reviews surrounding use of force and misconduct cases.

The OIR Group made the new recommendations while reviewing the progress of the Police Department’s implementation of 57 systemic suggestions initially submitted after a series of officer-involved shootings and a near in-custody death in 2011 and 2012 “rocked” the agency.

The Santa Maria City Council will hear about a nine-page addendum to the initial report on the audit during a meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Council Chambers at City Hall, at the corner of Cook Street and Broadway.

After receiving the 2014 findings, the City Council requested that the OIR Group revisit the department and review the status of implementation of the recommendations. 

Additionally, City Manager Rick Haydon asked the OIR Group to conduct a “mini audit” of recent use of force and internal investigations.

“In addition to reviewing the status, progress, and implementation of OIR Group’s systemic recommendations, we were provided a small sample of force and internal affairs investigations for review. Our general findings stemming from that review was that SMPD had significantly improved the quality of investigations of force incidents and allegations of misconduct,” wrote Michael Gennaco, an attorney with OIR Group, which provides oversight and evaluates law enforcement agencies.

The reviewers made several specific observations and crafted three new systemic recommendations for the Police Department to implement.

The Police Department should consider using mediation as a less formal process to resolve low-level citizen complaints, typically those involving officers’ comments perceived as rude, offensive or less than professional, Gennaco advised

“Mediation can be a beneficial process to both the officer and the citizen and can lead to results more beneficial to police-citizen relations than relying entirely on the formal investigation process,” the report notes.

Additionally, stun gun data should be downloaded during use of force investigations, since the information can be helpful to assess whether an officer properly used force, Gennaco added.

During those investigations, supervisors’ interviews with the subject should be conducted when the person is coherent, the report said. In one instance, the supervisor’s interview was hampered because the subject was under the influence and unable to provide a coherent account.

The auditors suggested the Police Department should adopt protocols instructing supervisors to conduct a follow-up interview if the first attempt was hampered by the subject’s physical condition. 

“The issues identified herein should be understood by the reader as recommendations designed to fine-tune a healthy internal investigative regime devised by the leadership of Santa Maria’s Police Department,” Gennaco said. 

Other observations noted supervisors now travel to the location to conduct use of force investigations. However, an officer who was late in reporting a use of force that occurred outside the city limits hampered the investigation into that incident, a matter that should be addressed, the report said.

In another instance, the department’s investigation didn’t review whether a person had been stopped and cited only after complaining the officer used profanity in telling the citizen to turn down a radio.

The auditors noted one “particularly commendable investigative task” by a supervisor who obtained a video from a use of force incident captured on a camera maintained by another law enforcement agency.

For the most part, officers provide more detailed information in their reports about the suspect activity that prompted the use of the force, Guanaco said. However, one officer’s use of the term “Thai clench” instead should spell out the actions used to subdue the subject.

The Santa Maria Police Department has declined to implement some of the initial recommendations. 

One involved tracking any charges sought against a subject in a use of force case. Police officials said the charges seldom have a relationship to the reason an officer used force.

Gennaco said other agencies have sought charges for interfering with or obstructing a law enforcement officer or assault on a peace officer, charges that have been abused to “justify” an the force used by the officer.

“In the recent past, those law enforcement agencies that have been seen to have overused these charges have been subjected to federal inquiry for potential violations of the Constitution and/or subjected to successful litigation after the obstruction charges have been dismissed or have resulted in an acquittal against the citizen,” Gennaco said. “For these reasons, it is important in our view to ensure that SMPD not fall victim to the same overuse of these charges when force is used.”

Regarding concerns the recommendation would require significant resources, the OIR Group said it would involve a database search with a negligible time commitment.

The auditors also suggested the Police Department enter into a formal agreement with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department to handle critical incident investigations or criminal allegations against officers. 

The Police Department says this agreement is unnecessary, but Gennaco urged officials to revisit this recommendation.

“Other law enforcement agencies have learned the unfortunate way when there has been uncertainty about whether to call another agency for assistance and whether the agency was willing to assume responsibility, usually at 2:00 in the morning where decisions end up being made on the fly and are less likely to be well considered,” the auditors said. “To the degree that such scenarios are discussed prior to an incident occurring, there is greater likelihood that the investigation will be handled smoothly and without potential disruption to the integrity of the investigation as a result of any uncertainty about which agency will handle the matter.”

Even if the department doesn’t set up protocols with the Sheriff’s Department or District Attorney’s Office, it should still spell out the procedure for SMPD supervisors.

“Without the development of  such guidelines, supervisors may be required to make irreversible ad hoc decisions in the field that will not be pre-informed by the wisdom and leadership of SMPD command staff,” the report notes.

Many of the OIR Group’s initial recommendations were already being implemented due to significant reforms implemented with the arrival of Chief Ralph Martin following the fatal shooting of Albert Covarrubias Jr. in January 2012.

“The fact that OIR Group has now been commissioned to return to examine the status of force and internal investigations is a testament to a Department oriented towards transparency and a City interested in ensuring real and lasting reform," Gennaco said in the report.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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